Brave New Work – book review

View from top of high building, feet dangling over edge

I was introduced to this book as a game-changer, and that was spot-on.  This book will be on MBA set text lists and will radically alter our practice in organisations.  In a week where the Economist highlighted the pervading scepticism of ‘responsible capitalism’ in elite MBA schools. This book busts the myth that inclusion and long-term value creation is ideologically driven. Rather an exponentially effective management practice.  Necessary to operate in the complex social systems that businesses find themselves in now.

The book builds on a wealth of peer-reviewed academic evidence of innovation, change and complexity.  For fans of David Stark, Amy Edmondson and Dave Snowden you will have confidence in the research.  However, it is its operational resonance that struck me as its primary value.

In an understated way, Dignan evidences the pervasive reality of Tayloristic management practice.  The impact on our ability to recognise the problems in front of us and organise around them.  The impact on our relationship with work and the people we work with. Instead offering evidence of the consequences of  ‘complexity conscious’ and ‘people positive’ operating systems.

Dignan’s ability to also tackle the difficult transition from ‘legacy’ to ‘future-fit’ organisation is not insignificant.  There are many new organisations who represent some of the features Dignan highlights and are modelling this.  However, Dignan sheds light on that less well demonstrated role in relating to, legitimising and work with ‘legacy’ organisation in how they transform.

For example, Dignan’s practice-based research on ‘roles for leaders’.  That throws light on those legitimate concerns about personal value in the new order that so often obfuscate change.   He shows essential new roles for leaders that are able to replace hierarchical status with competence respect. That can move from ‘checking’ to creating space for development, and providing answers to ensuring ‘ever growing capability’.   The book is also filled with practical starting points that – with the right intent, support and skill – can be introduced wherever and whatever one’s own organisational context.

One final highlight for me is his resonance with human-centred design, building on Karl Weick’s work on sense-making from the 1990s.  He busts the myths that people are generally resistant to change.  Instead, that resistance comes from change that doesn’t make sense to people and is ‘incoherent [and] poorly managed’.   He also demonstrates that mastery of self-organising (one of the key features of working with not against complexity) is not the function of an elite.  He cites examples from manufacturing factories.

It was a delight to find a book that opens up someone else’s years of practice, combined with reflection, reading, learning and self-examination.   It manages to walk the tightrope of a well thought-out framework for effective operating systems, starting points for conversations within organisations, whilst not falling into the trap of being an over-zealous prescriptive toolkit.

If you know something’s not right in your organisation, if you have a question but you’re not sure of where it will lead you, then this is a book that might just get you going.